Tag Archives: elephants

Collaring elephants in Gilé National Reserve – wilderness at its best!

by Dr. Michelle Henley

Credit: Julie Kern

“What would the world be, once bereft of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left, o let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins (Inversnaid 1881)

There is a special kind of peace to be found in the company of many trees. The purity of air is an added blessing given by the surrounding oxygen-producing and sunlight-seeking aspiring trees. I marvel at the diversity of the stem shapes, trying to follow them with my eyes to the upper crowns where the patterned blue sky is largely hidden by the chlorophyll puzzle of many leaf shapes. Alessandro Fusari (the responsible FFS-IGF Foundation Technical Advisor), walks us through the Miombo Forest of Gilé National Reserve in Mozambique. The grass is tall and rank, the forest vast and seemingly endless. We have come here to find elephants to collar.

Credit: Julie Kern

Alessandro is a wealth of information about the area and its history. He has known this jewel for 20 years. Before the magic of the forests envelops us, we turn back in anticipation of the landing helicopter so the operation can start. We all realise that this is not going to be an easy task as the dambos (natural open patches in the woodlands filled with grasses, rushes and sedges) are few and far between, offering very little opportunities for the helicopter to land. The dense canopy can easily conceal a herd of wily elephants.

Credit: Julie Kern

However, we could not wish for a more experienced team under the meticulous planning of Alessandro. We have Drs. Thomas Prin (Project Manager for FFS-IGF), Joao Almeida (Wildlife Veterinarian for Saving the Survivors) and Ben Muller (Wildlife Veterinarian for Wildlifevets.net). Our pilot (Peter Perlstein from Wildlife Helicopters Mozambique) comes with 38 years of wildlife flying experience

Credit: Julie Kern

On the ground we have Dr Julieta Lichuge as Wildlife Veterinarian and Elias Matsinhe as Head of Communication and Marketing for ANAC (Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação). Tersio Joaquim David represents the FFS-IGF PhD Candidate who will be working with the tracking data amongst many other responsibilities. Then there is a group of nine ladies made up of the Elephants Alive team accompanied by five Blue Sky Society expedition members under the leadership of Carla Geyser. We here to help spot elephants, carry equipment, fit collars and collect data via the five collars kindly donated by FFS-IGF (Foundation François Sommer and the International Foundation for Wildlife Management) and Blue Sky Society.

Photo Credit: Anka Bedetti

“What to do?’’ was a phrase we jovially repeated after Alessandro as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack could not be closer to the truth than finding an elephant to dart in a closed canopy of miombo woodland. Fortuitously, Dr Carlos Lopes Pereira from ANAC had collared four elephants in 2016 so we had a starting point with one operational collar left sending out a VHF signal in the sea of bush which stretched for 2,860 km² before us.

Photo credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

Away from the base camps on either side of the Reserve there is only one main road intersecting the breathtaking, unfragmented landscape spread below the beating blades of the helicopter. Anka Bedetti (The Elephants Alive Tracking Project Manager) kept the flying and darting teams on track so that the first tuskless cow was found relatively easily before reaching the one remaining collared cow who was due for a replacement collar.

Credit: Ben Muller

Thereafter it takes 20 hours of flying outside of Gilé into the neighbouring Community Coutada and even beyond to collar another two cows and a bull, all of which are tucked away in ever denser forest.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

Our time and the budgeted hours come to an end too soon. One collar is left to deploy during a future mission together with two buffalo collars which Thomas hopes to deploy on some reintroduced buffalo herds.

Plumes of fires dotted on the horizon remind us all that there is still much to do in Gilé. The Reserve needs more rangers, more elephants and general game. It needs to be on the map as a tourist destination.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

The quiet forests and the vast wilderness seem to echo with potential and if these trees could speak they would surely proudly talk of Gilé’s former glory when the Reserve was teaming with black rhino, elephants, and numerous other species including large predators which all hid in the shadows of these same trees.

Credit: Anka Bedetti

ANAC and FFS-IGF have joined hands to start the journey to ensure that the animals are brought back and protected. The collared sentinels will lead the way and map the footpaths where we all hope other soft-soles and sharp hooves will also leave their mark. Gilé National Reserve’s surrounding Coutada of Mulela will be community-owned, representing a new model where the people will have ownership of the hope and potential that the Reserve offers as a neighbour.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

As we leave the emerald which is Gilé National Reserve, we cross into the buffer zone and then fly over the many shambas (farmlands) with their colourful inhabitants dressed in bright shweshwe prints while standing in clean-swept yards surrounded by rows of cassava crops. I keep thinking of those Brachystegia woodlands and the few remaining secretive elephants.

Credit: Dr. Michelle Henley

We follow the lazy bends of the Lice River heading southward and back towards Quelimane. As I look back towards Gilé the trees, people and wildlife seem to blur together on the horizon. I close my eyes in an attempt to burn the Reserve’s beauty into my mind and whisper: “Let them be left, wildness and wet until we meet again’’.

Credit: Julie Kern

Elephants and Vultures – It’s Complicated

Written by Robin Cook

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

The white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) is a critically endangered species in the Greater Kruger National Park (Greater KNP), with adults being threatened by a variety of factors such as poisonings, electrocutions, muti-trade and habitat loss. These factors place great strain on an already decreasing population. However, as white-backed vultures nest at the top of big trees, it is also a possibility that impact by African elephant (Loxodonta africana) on big tree species may affect vulture nesting success. Therefore, Elephants Alive have been monitoring elephant impact on vulture nesting trees since 2008. Our surveys take place across the Associated Private Nature Reserves of the Greater KNP, with this year being the first year that Thornybush Private Nature Reserve has been included in the survey. This long-term survey allows us to gain an understanding of the size class and species of trees for which vultures select, the elephant impact levels on these trees, as well as the survival rates of the trees and vulture nests. And what do we find? A complex relationship. White-backed vultures nest in a variety of tree species, some which are more vulnerable to elephant impact than others. Vulture nests are also vulnerable to heavy winds, which have frequented the Greater KNP in recent months. Therefore, by assessing a variety of habitat-types and tree species across the Greater KNP, we are gaining a clearer understanding of where elephant impact may be a concern and where it may not be. This information is then fed back to reserve management to aid in the conservation of vultures and their nesting trees.

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

We are very grateful to all reserve management for granting us permission to continue with this survey, as well as to Spencer and Cheryl Morrison, Aida Ettayeb, Jessica Wilmot and Hiral Naik who helped in the field during the 2019 survey. Cheryl Morrison is also thanked for measuring tree size dimensions on completion of the field work. A special word of thank to Sieglinde Rode who started this study with Dr. Michelle Henley as part of her MSc in 2008 and who has sadly passed away. We would also like to thank Johna Turner for many years of offering protection to field assistants in the past.

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb
Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb


WHO IS WHO? by Dr. Julie Kern

How many large-tusked bulls remain in the APNR? How socially connected are different population members? How successful are human-elephant conflict mitigation methods? These questions are all examples of key research objectives for Elephants Alive. If at first glance you think these questions have little in common, look again and you’ll see they all rely on a key piece of information – who’s who.

Identifying elephant bulls falls under the umbrella of the ID Study and is Elephants Alive’s longest-running project, having begun in 1996. Since then, the team have identified almost 1,500 individual bulls. Identifying elephants requires excellent observation skills and the team pay special attention to any noticeable physical features which differ between individuals, from tusk configuration and body appearance, to characteristic ear patterns, such as notches, tears and holes. Using photographs collected at each sighting, identikits are drawn for each individual elephant, and subsequently used to identify the individuals seen in the field. If you’re keen to hone your detective skills, read on for our selection of top elephant-identification tips and tricks to use at your next sighting.

State the obvious

Many individuals have startling body features which can make their identification quick and simple. Look out for collapsed or folded ears, missing tails or trunk tips, and the location of scars or lumps.

Also take note of the tusks – any birdwatchers will be familiar with the acronym ‘GISS’ or general impression of size and shape’, a rule which also holds true in this case. Are they short or long, thin or thick, straight, splayed or skew? Are both tusks present, and if not, is one simply broken at the base or missing altogether? When missing entirely, the tusk socket is conspicuously empty (below far right).

Play it by ear

Once you’ve checked the more obvious features, it’s time to take a closer look at an elephant’s ears. If there are any tears, notches or holes, pay attention to their location, size and shape. Unfortunately, many individuals have few notches and holes in their ears, especially younger elephants, which makes them much harder to identify. In this case, you can often find a clue to their identity by noting venation patterns on the ears.

The signs they are a changin’

Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s worth remembering that much like ourselves, an elephant’s physical features are likely to change over time as tusks break, another tear appears, or holes pull through leaving a notch in their place. Take Kierie-Klapper (below), a young bull first seen in 2005 and resighted in most years since. In 2013 a new hole appeared in his lower left ear, and earlier this year, another notch was added to the top of his right ear.

Elephants Alive has recently published an Elephant ID Guide in conjunction with Amarula, featuring 30 of the most iconic individuals in the APNR. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy or alternatively, if you have photographs from your own sightings that you’d like to add to our Citizen Sightings database, please forward them to info2u@elephantsalive.org.

Gratitude to beautiful Kenya and all its dedicated conservationists

Staff shot – strategy meeting, Shaba 2019
Photo credit: Jane Wynyard

We consider ourselves privileged to have links to special friends and colleagues in Kenya. We are very proud of Elephants Alive’s Ronny Makakule who was awarded a trip to Kenya by Save the Elephants to meet David Daballen, a guru in the field of individual elephant identification.

Ronny Makakula and Dr. Iain Douglas Hamilton

This was followed by the attendance of a very informative STE strategic meeting by our chairperson and director (Marlene McCay and Dr. Michelle Henley). Here we learnt about the ins and outs of how STE and the Elephant Crisis Fund effectively operate to make a difference to the conservation of elephants across Africa.

Marc Goss CEO of MEP, Dr. Michelle Henley and Dr. Jake Wall

Michelle and the Elephants Alive Tracking Project Manager (Anka Bedetti de Kock) then went on to visit Dr. Jake Wall, the as newly appointed Director of Research and Conservation for MEP. We got to meet the CEO of MEP, Marc Goss and other staff who will collectively place MEP on the map in terms of elephant conservation. Jake, in his usual generous and knowledgeable way freely shared his advanced coding skills with Anka, Benjamin Loloju and Nelson Mwangi, the latter two people from STE and collectively known as the formidable ‘Benson’ team.

Benjamin Loloju, Anka Bedetti de Kock and Nelson Mwangi

We are very appreciative for the invitation and the opportunity to apply these skills in upcoming reports to reserve managers and funders. Other than the shared buzz of knowledge, it was an unforgettable experience to enjoy sundowners on the banks of the famous Mara River, just before leaving.

The Rift Valley

As if the shades of the expansive African sky and the good company of Jake and his family were not enough already, a lioness suddenly appeared on the opposite bank to flush a warthog from its hollow and then disappeared in hot pursuit of her quarry. Another magical moment in Africa where you know that the memory will be etched in your mind but it all happened so quickly that you left wondering if it really happened or were you just daydreaming ….. fortunately, this time there were enough witnesses left with huge smiles on their faces.

An Elephant in the Mara

The saying of Mehmet Murat Ildan rings clear: “Enlarge your windows till you get a window where you can see the whole universe with one look!”.  Understanding how other conservation projects such as Save the Elephants (STE) and the Mara Elephant Project (MEP) deal with Human-Elephant-Conflict, the tracking and individual identification of elephants is not only inspirational but also very informative to our own long-term efforts.

Christina, Willow and Dr. Jake Wall